Posted May 1, 2021
Written by Dale Scott, WLT Board Member
EONS OF PLODDING TIME
WISE TRUTHS GUARDEDLY KEPT
BOX TURTLE REVEALS
Keeper of secrets, our colorful Eastern box turtle (Terrapin Carolina Carolina) has origins that stretch back 250 million years to the time of the great reptiles. They are mostly creatures of the dry land but can be found also in damp pastures, shallow woodland pools, or cozying in wet leaves or dirt. They move slowly with, I think, deliberate cool.
My observations assign them some enviable characteristics: persistence, patience, endurance, to name a few. I once watched one for a full 10 minutes trying to eat a sizable snail; the morsel must have been considered a prize bite, for the turtle’s effort to conquer it was impressive. In the end, he gave it up (too big a mouthful!) and moved on, presumably, to a more manageable worm, insect, or berry.
For years beginning in 2003, I have taken photos of individual turtles that have crossed and crisscrossed our roughly ¾-acre yard. I have noticed that the markings and shape of the shell (from mostly oval to somewhat round or pear-shaped) lend each turtle an individual identity, although these characteristics change somewhat with age. Sighting a turtle is always a rush for me, whether it’s finding one hiding under a clutter of moist leaves to avoid pesky mosquitoes or watching a female laboriously build her nest to lay eggs. One summer day while weeding in the garden, I heard a totally new kind of vocalization. It is impossible for me to describe the sound accurately. It was low in pitch—a sort of snuffly, ‘truffly’ snorting; a mystery. I followed the sound and, astonishingly, spied a turtle amidst the greenery!
Sadly, I’ve experienced fewer and fewer of such ‘finds’ in the last couple of years. One incident occurring on August 18, 2018, however, was profound, and I’ll remember it for the rest of my life. It was 2 days after my younger sister had passed away. The time was 5:45 p.m. I had been sitting in the sunroom watching an afternoon thunderstorm through the screen door. As I got up to leave, I was astonished to see a turtle on the large flat stone step, looking in at me. It faced me with its neck fully stretched upward and met my gaze. Its carapace was wet and ‘squeaky clean’ after the sudden downpour. I moved to the door to say, “Hello,” recognizing her as ‘Bella’ whom I first met and named in 2011. She remained on the step (her bright eyes anticipating entry perhaps?) for what seemed an awfully long time, possibly a minute. Reluctant to break the magic but wanting to capture the moment, I raced to get the camera, hoping she’d still be there when I returned but expecting that she would not be. She WAS still there and seemed not to have moved, her neck still stretched upward and her eyes fully on mine. We had a bit of longish conversation and then very slowly (and perhaps reluctantly?) she turned aside and headed for the ivy along the foundation wall. I was enchanted, mystified, awed, and humbled.
Did I just have a conversation with a turtle? Was this small reptile — so remote in genetic composition and sensibility to me, so earthbound and ordinarily most secretive — imparting a message? Perhaps a gossamer good-bye from my departed sister? Yes. I think, “Yes.” No matter that the occult ‘how’ cannot be answered, for a few inexplicable, rare, precious minutes, the turtle and I understood each other perfectly.